We’re only two episodes into Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier—the next Marvel Cinematic Universe/Disney+ series after *WandaVision—and it’s already focused on big ideas. Essentially, showrunner Malcolm Spellman (Empire) is exploring what the Cap mantle means for the identity of a handful of MCU men, both new and old.
For Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who decided to reject Steve Roger’s parting wish for him to become the next Captain America, it’s about what it means for a Black man to potentially become a symbol of America. For Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who’s working through the trauma of becoming a mind-controlled assassin in the form of the Winter Soldier, it’s about trying to find his true self. For John Walker (Wyatt Russell) , who the government installs as the new Captain America, it’s about trying to do right with a role forced upon him. And the most recent episode also introduces us to Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), whose tragic backstory represents a grim, racially charged take on the Captain America ethos.
In other words, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier might as well be called Captains America instead. Let’s unpack the comic book origins of each of the Captains and examine how the show interacts with the storied history of those characters.
Sam Wilson: Cap for the People. In the first issue of the 2015 relaunch Captain America: Sam Wilson, writer Nick Spencer and artist Daniel Acuña dove headfirst into modern US politics, as Sam actively rejects the US government on behalf of the average American citizen. It’s a move Steve Rogerspulled dozens of times throughout his tenure as Cap, but Sam’s enemy was new: The Sons of the Serpent, hood-wearing white supremacists who turned their rage towards Mexican working migrants trying across the border. Conservative news outlets handled this plot development about as well as you’d expect.
Spencer presciently scripted detractors to claim Sam is “not their Captain America.” From that point forward, Captain America: Sam Wilson explicitly addressed complicated and contemporary social topics, one of the few times in Marvel Comics history where a title directly engaged with real-world issues. Sam felt it critical for his Captain America to make it known who he was fighting for in a way Steve never quite articulated, proving he was a Cap for the people. With Spellman at the helm of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the show is pursuing a logical and impactful extension of Wilson’s rich comic book legacy by directly engaging with what it means to be Black and what it might mean for there to be a Black Captain America.
Bucky Barnes: Selfish Cap. If there’s anything close to an Emo Captain America, Bucky Barnes fits the bill. In the wake of the apparent death of Steve Rogers, Bucky ended up taking over the role of Captain America at the request of Tony Stark. Bucky, ever the lone ranger, insisted that if he’s going to take up the shield, then his approach will require complete autonomy. Bucky Cap, as he’d be lovingly named by fans, bucks Steve’s storied history of putting country and loyalty first — and answers only to himself.
Yet the early days of Bucky Cap are marked by Bucky’s self-doubt over whether or not he’s the right man for the job. His past as the Winter Soldier still haunts his dreams, something the latest episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier captures with Bucky’s “if he [Steve] was wrong about you, then he was wrong about me” line. Bucky’s time in the Cap mantle ends up serving as a path of self-redemption, as a way for the character to crawl his way back after years of living a life that wasn’t his. Here’s to hoping we’ll see a similar arc for Bucky in the show.
John Walker: The Anti-Cap. Writer Mark Gruenwald designed John Walker to be the complete antithesis of Captain America. He gained superpowers through a deal with the Power Broker, and took over the shield when Steve Rogers stepped down. Whereas Rogers grew up as a poor northern city boy, Walker hails from a rural middle-class southern upbringing; Rogers was older, Walker was young; Rogers had lofty beliefs, and Walker was pragmatic. In short, he was an edgy Captain America who only got darker after terrorists killed his parents. Walker hunted down those responsible, killing or seriously injuring them in the process, before Rogers. took back control of the shield.
In his so-far brief appearance, the Wyatt Russell version of Walker nails the jerkish nature of his comic book roots, while hinting at something darker. Between his girlfriend and his partner having to give him pep talks at the beginning of the episode and his more menacing threat to Sam and Bucky, it’s not too far crazy to think Walker could lose his mind and go full Homelander before all is said and done.
Isaiah and Eli Bradley: The Tragic Caps. While we don’t get his name specifically, it’s revealed in the credits of the second episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier that Eli Bradley answers the door when Buck and Sam arrive to talk to Isaiah Bradley. Comic book fans know Eli as the superhero Patriot, a Young Avengers member who serves as the team’s version of Captain America, gaining super-soldier powers in a blood transfusion from his grandfather Isaiah.
Isaiah Bradley’s story, told by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker in Truth: Red, White, & Black, is one of the saddest tales ever told at Marvel. The U.S. government attempts to re-create Captain America’s legacy with a new version of the super-soldier serum (a recurring event that rarely turns out well) while invoking the Tuskegee Experiments. Isaiah is the lone survivor of forced experimentation on 300 Black army soldiers, essentially becoming the second Captain America. He dons the costume and sets out on a suicide mission to destroy the Nazi’s own super-solider serum factory, but is captured and tortured. Eventually rescued by German resistance fighters, Isaiah returns home to the US — only to be court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison for stealing Cap’s costume. After serving 17 years in solitary, he’s eventually pardoned, but the toll of the janky super-soldier serum manifests as dementia.
The MCU version of Isaiah isn’t too different from his comics counterpart. Instead of fighting in WWII, he battles Hydra during the Korean War, where he’s eventually captured and subjected to Hydra experimentation, which is why Bucky knows who he is. This Isaiah is a forgotten soldier of America’s forgotten war, living out the rest of his days in anonymity. At least for now.
We’ll have to wait and see how much Eli is involved moving forward. Still, considering the casting of actors like Kathryn Newton, Hailee Steinfeld, and Iman Vellani to play the next generation of MCU heroes, we likely won’t have to wait too long before Eli takes up a shield too.